Syrian Civil War


Overview

Since its independence from France, Syria has had a long history of internal turmoil due to reasons ranging from socioeconomic challenges, widening income inequality, concentration of power in the ruling elites, oppression of political and civic rights, and geopolitical tensions. 

The secular Ba’ath Party seized power through a publicly supported military coup, but Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar Al-Assad’s father, failed to redistribute the wealth as had promised, and instead cracked down on dissent. Under the reign of his son, Bashar Al-Assad, trade was liberalized but authoritarianism remained. Bashar’s economic reform resulted in a multi-sectarian elites consolidating power through controlling the Syrian economy. Consequently, as inequality grew, irritation by the rural and poor urban areas continued to grow as well, while political mobilization remained highly centralized, resulting in the protest movements of the Arab Spring in 2011. 

The protests had quickly spiraled out of control into a regional and international proxy war fought on the ground by a multitude of factions, each with their own agenda. The conflict grew from a full-scale war between the Syrian government and anti-government rebel groups, but has since spilled over into neighboring states and drew in outside parties creating the most drastic civil war of modern history. 

With a fractured opposition, the build-up of Kurdish forces in the North, a resurgent Syrian government, and the presence of Islamic fundamentalist militants such as ISIS, the hope for a peaceful resolution to this conflict was undermined. As such, the protracted conflict has left many of the key actors that opposed Assad’s autocratic regime currently considering whether to accept their defeat, as Assad’s military – backed up by Iran and Russia – has almost regained control of all the regions of the destroyed post-war Syria. Some other opposition groups remain defiant, while ISIS militants have been pushed out of its strongholds. Presently, over 6 in 10 Syrians had either been internally or externally displaced, and the humanitarian crisis in Syria is far from over. 

Facts

Where:
Syrian Arab Republic
Population:
18.5 million
Deaths:

Over 570,000 (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights).

Refugees/Displaced People:

6.2 million displaced internally (UNHCR).

6.7 million refugees around the globe (UNHCR).

Combatants:

Syrian Government military, Iran, Hezbollah, Russia , USA, ISIS, Kurdish Forces and Syrian opposition forces.

Key Actors

Assad’s regime is the ruling elite that mainly consists of Alawites, which is a Shiite islamic sect followed by 12% of Syria’s population. Assad’s regime is backed up by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah. They have used vicious tactics to oppress its opposition forces and supporters. Assad’s government went under investigation of alleged use of chemical weapons more than once since the conflict started. 

A myriad of rebel brigades with varying ideologies, some of which are supported by the Turkish government and the U.S-led coalition. The prominent groups are the Free Syrian Army and Syrian Democratic Forces. The U.S.-led alliance has conducted over 9,000 airstrikes against ISIS/ISIL in Syria, which have also led to many non-combatant casualties.

Taking advantage of the chaos and instability caused by the war, ISIS took control of the eastern territory of Syria, declaring it an Islamic State. Since then the jihadist movement had been operating their attacks and recruiting fighters in the middle east region from their Syrian base. ISIS had been attacked by different forces including the US-led coalition and Assad’s alliances, which resulted in the defeat of the jihadist movement.

Supported by the U.S-led coalition (excluding Turkey) and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. Kurdish political parties formed the YPG armed group to protect civilians in the Kurdish North. Recently they have worked cooperatively with the Syrian Democratic Forces formed up of Arab, Turkmen, and Kurd alike. While Kurdish forces have not been in direct conflict with the Syrian government, they do aspire for a semi-autonomous Kurdish state in Northern Syria.

Has been a combatant of Israel but the Hashemite dynasty have also maintained communication with Israel even before peace treaties were signed, as they were in 1995-6

Similar to Jordan, has fought Israel but now has become a long standing ally and important strategic partner of Israel in the region, since signing a peace treaty in 1979

Originally opposed to Bashar Al-Assad, Saudi Arabia supported the opposition forces in Syria, going as far as funding Islamist groups like the Al-Nusra Front. With it becoming more clear that Al-Assad will win the war in Syria, Saudi Arabia and its allies have shifted focus to reaping some of the benefits of the post-war reconstruction period. Saudi Arabia and Syria under Bashar Al-Assad are now in a detente phase.

Led the armed struggle against Israel for the Palestinian cause until secretly signing the Oslo Accords in 1993 with Israel. The movement has also engaged in intra-Palestinian tensions with the Palestinian Authority (PA).

There are a multitude of NGO’s on the ground in Syria, too many to account for. Some are more recognizable than others such as the U.N through its agencies and the Red Cross.

  • The UNHCR has been overwhelmed in its efforts to provide relief and resettlement in addressing the refugee crisis in Syria.
  • A local NGO known as the White Helmets evacuated and rescued civilians from the aftermath of airstrikes while being purposely targeted themselves.
  • Some NGO’s, such as the Red Cross, have played a direct role in the negotiation and brokering of ceasefires for the purpose of aid delivery into besieged civilian areas.

Iran had played a key role in supporting Assad’s regime, they gave Assad military aid and had also actively fought the opposition forces on the ground. Iran’s support for Assad’s regime is due to religious similarity, as Iran’s population majority is Shiite. Additionally, Iran’s support for Assad is to ensure the Alawite political dominance to reduce Saudi Arabia’s Sunni influence in the region.

Russia supported Assad’s regime through airstrikes, which was the main reason behind recapturing territories controlled by ISIS and the opposition forces. Additionally, Russia provided political support to Assad in the UN Security Council (UNSC). The main reason behind Russia’s support is that the only Middle East military base that Russia has is in Syria. Russia has also had strong historical ties to the Assad family, going as far back as Syria’s independence.

Hezbollah is a Shiite armed group that supported Assad’s military on the ground given its religious support for Alawite and its strong ties with Iran’s government. 

The conflict had a strong effect on Jordan’s economy. The country could not handle the number of Syrian civilians who fled the war, according to the UNHCR reports, more than 600,000 Syrians are registered as refugees in Jordan. The countries lack of resources and economic strength had struggled to accommodate the Syrian refugees. Accordingly, Jordan responded by supporting the opposition forces and its allies to try to end the conflict.

The US supported the opposition forces and the Kurds after Assad’s regime started using chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. The US aid to the opposition forces and the Kurs was through providing air support, military intelligence, and special forces. The Main reason behind the US support was to support the opposition and the rebels in their fight against ISIS. The US did not have any boots on the ground or direct attacks on Assad’s regime in Syria during Barack Obama’s presidency period. However, in 2018, President Donald Trump ordered to launch an airstrike on Syrian military bases as a response to the alleged chemical weapon attack by Assad’s forces. 

Turkey played a key role in supporting the opposition forces as part of the US-led coalition that aimed to fund the opposition forces in order to take control of areas controlled by ISIS. Additionally, Turkey opposed the Kurdish forces in Syria, as their influence is seen as a threat to the Turkish government that may trigger protests by the Kurdish minority in Turkey asking for autonomy.

Opposed to Bashar Al-Assad and his regime in Syria, Qatar joined it’s gulf neighbours in opposing him and funding the myriad of opposition groups that were fighting him. While most of its neighbours have now accepted that they may have to work alongside Al-Assad in order to get an economic boost in the post-war reconstruction phase, Qatar has said it will not normalize relations with Syria under Bashar Al-Assad, nor support his re-admittance into the Arab League. 

Originally opposed to Bashar Al-Assad, the UAE, alongside its allies, supported the opposition forces in Syria, going as far as funding Islamist groups like the Al-Nusra Front. With it becoming more clear that Al-Assad will win the war in Syria, the UAE and its allies have shifted focus to reaping some of the benefits of the post-war reconstruction period. The UAE and Syria under Bashar Al-Assad are now in a detente phase, with the UAE pushing for Syria’s re-admittance into the Arab League. 

Timeline

Protests erupt in Deraa on the back of the Arab Spring. Protestors were demanding the freedom of political prisoners and government reforms, though no call for Assad to step down was made. Protests are met with a brutal government crackdown, while Assad announces the implementation of some appeasing measures such as the lifting of the state of emergency and the dismissal of some government officials.

In response to the brutal government crackdown, protests spread across Syria and the government continues its hard-handed approach, while the Western powers begin to impose sanctions.The Syrian army is called upon from its barracks and is deployed in major cities across the country.

The Free Syrian Army is formed and sees many defectors from the Syrian army joining its ranks.

Then U.S President Barrack Obama calls upon Assad to resign and signs an executive order for all Syrian government assets in the U.S to be frozen.The Syrian National Council is formed and offers hope for a united opposition by bridging exiled opposition members with those in Syria.

Syria is suspended from the Arab League for failing to adopt a proposed peace plan, and faces sanctions from other members.

  • The shelling of Homs and other cities in Syria intensifies.

The U.N Security Council endorses a non-binding peace plan drafted by U.N Special Envoy Kofi Annan.

The shooting down of a Turkish jet by Syria increases tensions between the two, as Turkey declares any Syrian military forces approaching the border will be seen as a military threat.

The Syrian government declares that they face an armed opposition with extremists in their ranks backed by foreign powers. Fighting spreads to Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city.Free Syrian Army seizes Aleppo and assassinates three security high ranking military chiefs in Damascus.

Then U.S President Obama warns that any use of chemical weapons will push the U.S to intervene on the ground.Prime Minister Riad Hijab defects from the government and joins the Syrian political opposition.

A fire destroys much of the historic market in Aleppo.

National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces formed in Qatar, excluding Islamist militias.

US, Britain, France, Turkey and the Gulf states formally recognize the National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.

The Syrian government blames Israel for an airstrike on a Syrian military base near Damascus, suspected as being the origin point for anti-air weapons destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

A Sarin gas attack in the Northern town of Khan Assel kills 26 people, half of whom were government soldiers. Both the government and the rebels accuse each other of the attack.

A deadly chemical gas attack on the town of Ghouta in the outskirts of Damascus claims the lives of hundreds. The Syrian government is blamed for the attack, though this is disputed on their part as they blame the opposition.

The U.N Security Council threatens to intervene with force in Syria if their chemical weapon stockpiles are not destroyed. By Mid-October, Syria signs on to the Chemical Weapons Convention.

“Non-Lethal” support for rebels in the North by the U.S and the U.K is suspended as a result of Islamist militants seizing the bases of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.

U.S brokered peace talks in Geneva fail due to the Syrian government refusing to discuss any transition of power.

The Syrian army with the support of Hezbollah seize Yabroud, the last rebel held town on the Lebanese border.

The Islamic State proclaims its rule over lands stretching from Aleppo to Diyala province in Iraq. 

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons announces that all chemical weapons have been removed from the hands of the Syrian government, though the opposition disputes this.

The U.S and five Arab states begin launching airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria.

After a fierce four month battle, Kurdish forces push the Islamic State out of Kobane on the Turkish border.

The Islamic State seizes the historic town of Palmyra from the Syrian government, and proceeds to destroy the historical site and artifacts in the area.

Russia formally enters the conflict by launching airstrikes against the Islamic State, though the U.S alleges that it also targets anti-Assad rebels.

The Syrian army allows the rebel evacuation of Homs, effectively returning Syria’s third largest city back into the hands of the government.

The Syrian army recaptures the city of Palmyra from the Islamic State with the aid of intense Russian airstrikes.

The Turkish army crosses into Syria to push back the Islamic State and Kurdish fighters.

Russia, Turkey, and Iran all agree to enforce a ceasefire between the government and non-Islamist rebels following talks in Kazakhstan.

58 civilians killed in a chemical gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun, the government denies responsibility and blames rebels.

The U.S decides to begin arming the Kurdish YPG, a move which infuriates Turkey and regional powers.

The U.S shoots down a Syrian fighter jet near Raqqah after alleging it had dropped bombs on the U.S backed SDF.

Hezbollah and the Syrian army launch an offensive to expel the last remnants of the opposition from the Arsal region on the Lebanese border.

Riad Hijab resigns from his position as the head of the High Negotiations Committee.

Turkey launches military operation against the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units—a group that played a key role in the defeat of ISIS.

 The Assad regime conducts an assault on rebel-held enclave in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus. 1,200 civilians are killed during the four week assault

More than 500 people are brought to medical centres in Douma, in Eastern Ghouta, following a suspected chemical attack in an area which has been blocked off. 42-60 people are believed to have died as a result of the attack. Despite international condemnation, both the Syrian government and Russia have denied any responsibility for the alleged attack.

 A UN report states that Syrian forces committed crimes against humanity during the siege of Eastern Ghoutta. UN Investigators found that Syrian forces had systemically starve the local population as a method of warfare and bombing civilian inhabitants.

As factions of rebels collapse in south Syria, northern factions of the Free Syrian Army announce a new coalition, the National Liberation Front

The Russia-Turkey agreement to create a buffer zone around Idlib goes into effect, attempting to de-escalate violence by government forces attempting to capture the rebel territory

Lasting through January 10 2019, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) attacked and seized the positions of the National Liberation Front (NLF) across rebel-held Idlib and Aleppo. 

A Kurdish fighter was killed and two British special forces troops were seriously injured by an ISIS attack near the town of Deir al-Zour. The injured men were evacuated by US forces.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton said, on a trip to Israel and Turkey, that the withdrawal of US troops from Syria depends on certain conditions, including the assurance that the remnants of ISIS forces are defeated and Kurds in northern Syria were safe from Turkish forces. However, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan rejected the call to protect Kurdish troops, whom he regarded as terrorist groups. The SDF said that they’d caught and arrested two American ISIS fighters, along with suspected fighters from Ireland and Pakistan, who had been planning a terrorist attack on fleeing Syrian civilians.

A truce was reached between the two factions, with the NLF surrendering their last positions in Idlib to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and evacuating to areas under the control of the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army in Afrin. On January 10, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham took control of the remaining positions previously held by the NLF.

US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said at a joint news conference with his Egyptian counterpart Sameh Shoukry in Cairo that the US would withdraw its troops from Syria while continuing the battle against ISIS, but warned that there would be no US reconstruction aid for areas controlled by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad until Iran and its proxies had left.

A suicide bombing by an ISIS militant next to a US patrol in Kurdish-held Manbij killed 18 people, including four US service personnel, and wounded 18, on the same day that US vice-president Mike Pence claimed that ISIS had been defeated.

After many weeks of sporadic fighting as civilians left Baghuz, the SDF says the five-year “caliphate” was over and ISIS was now defeated in Syria.

ISIS reported that they had killed 35 government troops in Homs and Deir al-Zour provinces; SOHR reported 27 killed, saying that this was the largest attack since ISIL had been declared defeated. Thousands of ISIL fighters and their families captured from Baghuz remained in camps nearby.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Michael Mulroy stated that the physical caliphate was defeated but ISIS was not and that there were over 10,000 completely unrepentant fighters left in Syria and Iraq. He expected the U.S. to be in Syria for the long haul with a very capable partner in the Syrian Democratic Forces. 

The Syrian Government, in coordination with the Russian Aerospace Forces, launched a ground offensive against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Jaysh al-Izza and National Front for Liberation-held territories in Northwestern Syria, in response to what it stated were repeated attacks on government-held areas, carried out by those groups from within the demilitarized zone.

A conditional ceasefire to end the bombing in Syria’s northwestern region of Idlib has been agreed upon after two days of negotiations in the Kazakh capital Nur-Sultan.

More than 30 Syrian government fighters have died in a blast at a military airport in central Syria, according to a monitoring group. The airfield was the alleged origin of a chemical attack on a rebel-held town in 2017.

Turkey will carry out an operation east of the Euphrates river in northern Syria, in an area controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia, as announced by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.

Latest posts by The Organization for World Peace (see all)